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Theatre in Review: what you are now (Ensemble Studio Theatre/The Civilians)

Pisay Pao. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Is it scientifically possible to override one's crippling memories? Not to forget them, exactly, but, rather, to neutralize them, stripping them of their pain? If it could be done, would we be better off? These are tantalizing questions, and they have special meaning for Pia, the heroine of Sam Chanse's drama. The daughter of a Cambodian refugee and her family's "responsible" child, she could write the book on inherited trauma. But her attempts at healing Chantrea, her mother -- and, by extension, herself -- is only one part of what you are now's busy scenario, which takes in family dysfunctions, immigration policy, relationship troubles, and a nation's horrific legacy. When it comes to subject matter, the playwright's eyes are bigger than her stomach.

Pia, a neuroscience researcher, is fascinated by the results of a real-life study in which lab rats are trained to associate the sound of a buzzer with a painful electric shock. "Then," she says, "they inject the rats with a drug that messes with protein synthesis," altering their brain chemistry so that, in effect, "they forget their fear." Explaining the theory behind the experiment, she notes, "Now we understand memory differently. Now we know that in order for an existing memory to be recalled it has to retrace and rebuild the pathways through which it originated." The implications are clear: "If a memory is essentially remade -- rebuilt each and every time it's recalled -- then it might be possible for this memory to be modified."

Never mind that this is, at best, a far-off possibility, or that it raises all sorts of ethical questions. Pia has her reasons, her life having been shaped by Chantrea, who only just escaped from the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. Chantrea refuses to discuss her experiences, insisting that everything is fine, just fine. But if that's true, why does she sleep fitfully, if at all? Why can't she tolerate music? And why does she occasionally slip into fugue states? There's also the matter of her disciplinary approach to child-rearing, combined with little or no physical affection, which has left Pia in a permanent state of frustration.

The play's action is triggered when Pia is approached by Siobhan, employed by a not-for-profit that gathers testimonies from Cambodians, about an interview with Chantrea. Siobhan gets a frosty reception and not without reason: She was once involved with Darany, Pia's brother, before she unintentionally upended his existence and subsequently ghosted him. The action then skips, often confusingly, between the present and ten years earlier, revealing how Chantrea's silence and Siobhan's attempted do-gooding came together to nearly ruin Darany's life, leaving Pia helpless and angry.

The creation of a complex drama juxtaposing novel theories of brain chemistry with the aftereffects of world-historical disaster might challenge a Tom Stoppard, so it may not be surprising that it eludes an early-career playwright like Chanse. The play's plotting is perfunctory, its characters are two-dimensional. (One of the play's big twists doesn't make much sense: Siobhan accidentally exposes a secret that alters Darany's life, but wouldn't it have come to light when he was arrested some time earlier?) Pia (Pisay Pao, as tough as they come) is chilly and hostile, often lashing out at others for perceived slights. The frequent butt of her ire is her boyfriend, Evan, an implausibly saintly soul who must have a masochistic streak, but Pia is even more brutally dismissive of Siobhan, who is only half-Cambodian. ("I mean, you're basically this white girl from Yale; of course, you wouldn't get it," Pia says, indulging in a bit of stereotyping.)

Pia is furious in part because she gave up promising career opportunities to stay near Chantrea, who isn't thankful for her daughter's sacrifice. Indeed, Pia feels inextricably tied to her mother, who works in an Asian restaurant and lives in a grubby neighborhood haunted by gangs. As played by Sonnie Brown, Chantrea has a way with a wisecrack. ("I think [Siobhan] wants to talk about your life in Cambodia before you came here," Pia says. "Sounds like she has a lot of free time," Chantrea snaps.) But just as what you are now never gets past Pia's brittle exterior to the deep narcissistic wound underneath, neither does it credibly evoke -- until very, very late -- the terrors that continue to haunt Chantrea.

Steve Cosson's direction steps lightly over this minefield of traumas, never getting near the story's darker implications; his work is best in quieter moments, for example when Darany and Siobhan, drawing close, talk about their complicated heritage. Most of the time, however, Emma Kikue (Siobhan) and Curran Connor (Evan) do their best with characters that exist to spar with Pia, although Robert Lee Leng is rather better as Darany, a good-natured homeboy transformed by adversity into a mature, politically aware adult.

The production design, especially Riw Rakkulchon's unit set and An-lin Dauber's costumes, does little to sort out the play's muddle of locations and time frames, but Jeannette Oi-Suk Yew's lighting confidently switches between warm incandescent washes with cold, bright laboratory looks. Leah Gelpe's sound design is also helpful, especially its use of vintage '70s-era Asian pop and a repeating motif involving a slammed door, the latter of which hints at one of Pia's childhood memories.

what you are now was funded in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation as part of an effort to encourage plays that explore scientific issues. But science plays an ancillary role here. As Evan reasonably points out, probably sinking his chances with Pia, humans are a lot more complicated than lab rats and her dreams of a medical palliative belong to the distant future. When a possible emotional breakthrough happens with Chantrea, it is via the good old talking cure. In any case, Chanse has taken on more than she can comfortably handle. A play about the scientific effort to reprogram memories would be fascinating and, quite possibly, disturbing. As Lauren Yee has already demonstrated with Cambodian Rock Band, the fallout from the Khmer Rouge is a rich subject for investigation. In taking on both, what you are now scants both. --David Barbour

(21 March 2022)

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